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Can’t bat, can’t bowl and can’t field. Say hello to the Indian test team (Part 2).

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose – Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr

So…nearly two weeks have crawled by since the first part of this post (read part 1 here.)

Ravi Shastri is the new team director. Derbyshire has signed Cheteshwar Pujara. Virat Kohli’s horror run has merely traded formats and coloured clothing for flannels. India lead a series against England 1-0 after the second game (familiar scoreline, anyone?).

The test series defeat still hangs in London’s air like a pall of gloom.

It’s not the defeat that hurts. It’s the gutless manner in which we capitulated – dropping catches, bowling poorly, collapsing innings after innings.

But it was only to be expected. I think it’s rather stupid for anyone to expect our test team to do well abroad. In all honesty, it’s a miracle we still manage to win at home.

Why, then, do we lose test matches?

First, confused team selection. We’re never quite sure what our best XI looks like. It’s a wonder Duncan Fletcher still has a job. Most coaches would have been sacked ages ago for allowing such patently idiotic selections. Glaring examples from the last series:

(a) The Shikhar-Gambhir Swap : Dhawan may not have been setting the world on fire but he was still the best opening option we had on the tour. Someone who had the ability to attack on difficult wickets and get bowlers to re-think their lines and lengths, a left handed version of Sehwag if you please. Dhawan also scored runs in New Zealand and had a fantastic Champions Trophy last year in England. Contrast this with Gambhir, who has a rubbish record in England and hasn’t played any proper cricket for ages. Add to it, Gambhir’s dismissal in the second innings of the Oval. Forget a dive, he just needed to stretch a little more to get back into his crease! Mind-boggling.

(b) The Stuart Little experiment : Should Binny have played the first test? Having played, did he deserve to be dropped after just two games? What did he do to earn a recall in the final test? Is his test career effectively over? Was he a batsman who could bowl or a bowler who could bat? Your guess is as good as mine.

(c) Persisting with Jadeja as the sole frontline spinner. Not playing Ashwin – a better batsman, a better slip fielder and the quickest Indian to a hundred test wickets  – in the first three tests was simply ridiculous. Ashwin would have added variety to the attack and given Dhoni much needed control while the quick bowlers rested. He may have even caught Alistair Cook in the first innings at Southampton.

(d) Playing Pankaj Singh instead of Varun Aaron at Southampton. After Ishant bounced England out at Lords, why would you bench your quickest bowler, someone with real pace and the ability to unsettle the opposition batsman?

I could go on and on. I haven’t even touched on the selection and dropping of the “Over-talented” Mr. Rohit Sharma.

Second, letting the game drift. I firmly believe M.S. Dhoni is one of India’s greatest captains. He has won every trophy there is to win (WorldT20, World Cup, Champions Trophy etc.). His greatness, sadly, is limited to limited overs. The reason is simple. India only need to bowl a maximum of 50 overs. Dhoni’s captaincy revolves around limiting damage in the field and backing the Shikhars, Rohits and Virats of the team to chase any score down.

Unfortunately for Dhoni, test cricket works differently. Test cricket requires that you bowl teams out. It requires that you remain patient and bowl in the corridor when the ball isn’t doing much. It requires the building of pressure by cutting off easy singles. Most importantly, test cricket requires that you take all 10 wickets in an innings and not allow world record 198 run last wicket partnerships a-la Trent Bridge. A captain needs to recognise important moments and take the game by the scruff of the neck. Inexplicably, Dhoni seems to switch off after the fifth or sixth wicket falls. It’s almost as if he is expecting the tail to collapse or for the overs to run out. More often than not, the game drifts and that is our undoing.

It is often argued that Dhoni doesn’t have the bowling resources required to win test matches. I don’t think that’s the case. We have perfectly adequate seamers (Bhuvi, Aaron, Ishant, Shami) and a decent spinner in Ashwin. After all, Sri Lanka won the previous series in England with what Michael Vaughan called a ‘glorified county attack’. I think Dhoni simply doesn’t have a feel for the test game like he does for the limited overs variety.

Is there a viable replacement in the offing? No. With the World Cup around the corner, it’s a foregone conclusion Dhoni will lead India in tests in Australia and then on into the World Cup.  After that, who knows? Perhaps Dhoni will retire and Kohli will take over. Kohli’s got the pedigree and has captained India’s Under-19 team to a World Cup win. In any case, he’s far too good a player to be out of form for much longer. He will bounce back, stronger and hungrier after the experience of this summer.

Third, a lack of experience of playing in seaming and bouncing conditions. All the great batsman from Richards to Lara to Tendulkar and Dravid have spent time playing county cricket in England. Zaheer Khan truly came into his own after playing county cricket.  For the current generation of Indian cricketers, the IPL coincides with the county season. Who would give up the glitz and glamour of the IPL to travel around England, make one’s own dinners and carry one’s own kit bags? For that matter, Pujara signing up for Derbyshire is all very well but the season here is nearly at a (wet) end. Would he be better served looking for a gig Down Under to prepare for the Australian tour this winter? Food for thought (provided by @VPadaki).

The way forward?

Is there a way forward for us to win test matches while retaining our ODI supremacy?

I think there there is. But it requires the administration to acknowledge there is a problem with the current set-up.

One suggestion is that test teams and limited over teams be completely separated. Players in the test team must either play all domestic cricket in India or seasons of county cricket in England or Sheffield Shield cricket in Australia. The batsman playing in the test team may play ODIs but should be banned from playing the IPL. Test bowlers should not be allowed to play limited over games at all to avoid burn-outs. Naturally, the administrators will need to make sure our test players make as much money as those playing ODIs/ IPL. After all, sportsmen have limited shelf-lives.

Also, we need to sack Fletcher. He’s a bigger flop than David Moyes. Hire a test coach who has won test matches abroad. Is there anyone better qualified for the job than the Wall? Yes, he has only recently retired and his family might have a few things to say about it. But will Rahul Dravid, the family man, prevail over Rahul Dravid, the Indian team’s man for every crisis? I think not.

Drastic? Perhaps.

But the Indian test team is in dire straits and desperate times call for desperate measures.

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